Sunday, 25 November 2012

Rape And Responsibility

In today’s Mail on Sunday, Mariella Frostrup’s column focuses on a report prepared by Deputy Children’s Commissioner, Sue Berelowitz. The report, entitled Child Sexual Exploitation in Gangs and Groups, was released last week and describes the number of girls forced into sexual activity by gang members. In response to the report, which is no doubt truly disturbing reading, she argues,“we need a Man Army determined to change cultural stereotypes, full of blokes that boys revere – footballers, musicians, actors and even Top Gear presenters (not normally short of opinions) – saying, loud and proud, that rape is for cowards, child abuse is despicable and treating girls like pieces of meat is simply unacceptable.”

Frostrup presumes that men can be immunised against committing rape by seeing anti-assault messages from men they respect and admire, an approach that suggests that men commit rape because they believe it’s somehow acceptable. She is sorely mistaken – men commit rape precisely because they know it is not acceptable. The power imbalance implied by the act, the misuse and subjugation of a victim by that assault, is very often entire focus of the act.

For rapists of this type, rape is rarely about sex or the lack of it; it’s about power and domination, control and shame. It’s about telling a person that they mean so little that they can be used in whichever way their attacker chooses. Sexual assault, like domestic violence and emotional abuse, is a way to dehumanise someone; their aggressor shows them that they have so little power that they cannot prevent their own mistreatment. They become, as the article suggests, a piece of meat, lacking agency and control – the shock of rape emanates as much from the complete denigration of the victim’s personality and humanity as it does from any violent physical act.
There is, of course, another type of rapist – one who misreads signals, assumes consent where none has been given, or fails to notice that his partner has lost interest in continuing. These men are not psychopaths, nor do they necessarily set out to cause harm, but the effect on their partner can be no less powerful. Some of these men notice their partners’ waning interest and stop in good time, some never notice and so continue, and some notice and make a conscious choice to keep going.

Some months ago, a discussion on Reddit emerged that allegedly contained contributions from men who had committed rape. Most were from young men who took a previously consensual act too far; few seemed to exhibit the psychopathic aggression we’re led to expect – perhaps these men were present but declined to post, understanding the negative reaction they’d receive. All those who posted were aware of what they’d done, and many knew they were committing rape when they were still in the moment of committing it. The following quotes are taken directly from the discussion, and seem to make little effort to excuse the acts of each correspondent.

I ignored her and did it. She realized what was happening and tried to clamp her legs shut, but it was too late and I was much stronger than her.”

“My hormones were going insane, I didn't have any empathy in my heart at that moment just my own concerns. She wasn't a person anymore just a path, a tool, a means to an end. Then once again, I can't remember. I don't remember what happened, I never asked her. I almost don't want to know. But I know I got off. I hate to say it but after it was done I went to bed, she stayed up crying. It wasn't until two days later that I realized I had done something awful.”

“Most girls don't really understand how horny guys are, how much stronger guys are, how guys will rationalize what they do. I see feminists and women on the Internet saying that no means no and women should be able to get as drunk as they want and not be sexually assaulted, and I couldn't agree more. But the reality of the situation is that women have to be careful because guys are one way when they're hanging out and another way when they're horny or worse drunk and horny.”

“My rapist (ex's best friend) told me he knew it was wrong, but would have probably done it again given the chance. He also was surprised that forced sex didn't make me want to be his girlfriend.”

A further objection can be raised to Frostrup’s assertion that perpetrators of rape and sexual assault “steal their [victims’] innocence and their futures”. In recent decades, the feminist movement has made efforts to transform the perception of the raped woman from ‘victim’ to survivor’ – a semantic shift, but one that can make a powerful difference to the way a woman experiences the time following her assault. Tell her that her life is ruined and she may well believe you, but tell her she can recover and you give her the power to overcome the experience; it’s not difficult to imagine which is the better impression to give someone in that position.

The kind of person inclined to commit rape for power will not be swayed by the words of a TV presenter or a football player, particularly words that have been put in their mouths by well-meaning authority. When one person decides to violently assault another, logic and government-sponsored messages play no part in the thought process. The kind of person who commits rape through misreading signals is unlikely to consider such advice in the heat of the moment; how can they, if they don’t realise they’re doing anything wrong?

Rapists commit rape for various reasons, none of which excuse the trauma they inflict upon their victim. Some do so to intimidate or punish, to inflict fear and denigrate their victim. Some do so because they misread signals or inaction from their partners, some do so because they simply don’t respect their partner’s wishes enough to stop. None of these situations can be remedied by a public service announcement or advertising campaign.
Rape is a cultural problem, but one that occurs in all cultures and throughout history. It’s not the job of public figures to tackle it with good intentions and a public service announcement; instead it’s the job of parents, teachers, sex educators, and then the media. From films like Greaseonwards, certain media products have positioned men as pursuer and women as the person who must exercise control and resistance; through these stories, we normalise sexually threatening behaviour. Young women come to expect and tolerate it, and young men feel they are excused to act as their hormones allegedly dictate.

To lower rape statistics, we much challenge the culture that excuses male sexual aggression and tells women that they must take sole responsibility for their own safety. We must abandon the macho culture that places to much emphasis on sexual experience, and instil a sense of respect and consideration for one’s sexual partners. It’s a difficult task, given the extent to which modern life is permeated with messages about sexual behaviour, but it can be done. We must start at the beginning and maintain a consistent message, and in doing so we can ensure that another generation of young women aren’t exposed to the same fear and exploitation as the ones that went before them.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

How We Failed Savita Halappanavar

On October 21st, Savita Halappanavar walked into Galway University Hospital complaining of severe back pain. A week later she was dead, fallen victim to septicaemia and e. coli. But Savita could have lived had she been offered one simple and common medical procedure – termination of a failing pregnancy.

When Savita was examined upon admission to the hospital, she was found to be miscarrying, but doctors could still detect a foetal heartbeat. For this reason, she was denied the termination – Ireland’s strict abortion laws forbid the procedure unless the mother’s life is in imminent danger. Instead, she was left to endure the pain and sorrow of a miscarriage, refused the option of inducing labour to hasten the process.

The distress of the experience, prolonged by those who doubtless wished they could help her, is unimaginable to someone that hasn’t experienced it. Savita’s husband, Parveen, said that she dealt with the situation well, even discussing trying for another baby. Savita seemed determined not to let the experience ruin her life; instead, it ended it.

The doctors and nurses who cared for Savita surely saw how she suffered; even though they must have been wracked with compassion and remorse, an unclear law said they could not help her. Whatever their personal politics and morals, regardless of their religious position or Hippocratic oath to protect life, they were compelled to manage and oversee the death of a young woman that they could otherwise have saved.

Savita's foetus was not viable, there was no hope of survival; instead of working to save one life, her doctors were forced to witness the end of two. They will have worked to combat the septicaemia that is believed to have killed her; they will have tried to keep her liver and kidneys healthy and functioning for as long as they could. But the awful truth is that one procedure could have obviated the need for all of that, and she was denied it - not by her doctors, but by the law.

Had Savita refused a termination, we could respect the decision that she had made, assured that she had her reasons for doing so. Had her doctors performed the procedure, there would be no news story; Savita and Parveen could have returned home and slowly come to terms with their loss. Instead, Parveen has lost not just his wife and his child, but his hopes and dreams for the future; everything he thought his life would become has been taken from him because of cruel and unsympathetic legislation.

Ireland's legal position on abortion is well-known; a historic cause for concern. For generations, girls and women have been forced to scrape together all the money they could and travel to England in secrecy - once by ferry into Liverpool, now by Ryanair and Easyjet flights into Heathrow and Luton. We cannot know their stories, but we may be assured that every one was different: some were young girls in the first flush of love who hadn't expected to conceive, some were victims of rape who now faced an additional burden of Catholic guilt to add to their trauma, some were women whose physical and mental ill-health meant that the strain of carrying a baby was an unthinkable challenge.

Thousands of men and women have marched in London, Dublin, and New York in Savita’s name. Across India, political and journalistic voices have been raised, questioning the Irish system. Savita’s parents and her husband have challenged the Irish authorities to explain why an Indian Hindu should be killed by a law intended for Irish Catholics – they have yet to receive an answer.

No-one who claims to respect the sanctity of human life could pardon this unpardonable offence. Anyone who believes that Savita's death was justified and that Irish law is correct has no right to call themselves pro-life; they are pro-foetus, no more and no less. We have permitted a religious position to influence the state, and by doing so ensured that a Christian moral has killed a Hindu woman. If we do not insist on the reassessment and abolition of this murderous legislation, we lose our claim to humanity and empathy.

It would be easy for us as atheists to exploit Savita's death to serve our own moral argument; we must resist the urge to do so. As feminists, we could hold her experience up as damning evidence of the sheer ignorance and foolhardiness of the pro-life movement; we must not. We must instead act in Savita's memory to ensure that this miserable, barbaric chain of events never befalls another woman.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Perfume, Professionalism And The Perfect Gentleman

This week, I’ve mostly been deciding whether my body is a weapon or a vessel, and whether I’m more devoted to integrity or the drive for success. Like most people, the flesh-and-bone part of me seems to be there to extract energy from food and move me around; it’s not until something goes wrong with it, or until I’m surprised by someone’s reaction to it, that I really even notice it’s there.
As usual, this self-discovery trip has been prompted by a couple of incidents; goatish comments from a trusted advisor, the realisation that I perform better in job interviews when one of the interviewers is a man, and being approached and sniffed at uncomfortably close range in a supermarket by a stranger who was apparently so intrigued by my new perfume that he was willing to risk (and return) an aggressive reaction from both me and my fiancé.
We confronted him angrily and, despite the presence of his young son, he became abusive and threatened us. Plainly he felt it was reasonable to place his own face six inches from the face and neck of a temporarily unaccompanied woman, inhale deeply, and tell her she smelt good, and that she should “cheer up” when she looked perturbed; we disagreed. He eventually went away; I doubt my concerns will be so obliging.
I’m currently in the process of taking on freelance writing work, with the help of a self-employment advisor on a Government-mandated employment program. When discussing the necessity of approaching publications and pitching articles - an intimidating but necessary part of the process - various people have suggested using my gender, “attributes” and “engaging personality” to “intrigue” editors; essentially, flirting my way into a job.
I remain incredulous. I’m not Samantha Brick; I’m simply not confident enough in my own looks and personality to try that. When I look into a mirror I see my father, and he’s overweight and bald with a face like that of a veteran scrum-half. Besides which, even if I looked like Angelina Jolie, shouldn’t a good feminist be outraged by the very suggestion?
This is, at its heart, an entirely sexist issue: male colleagues are not forced to make the same decision. I’ve worked for male managers who flirted remorselessly with contacts of both genders, and for female managers who dispensed with sparkle and charm and got by on talent and professionalism alone, but it’s easy to understand that women surely spend more time agonising over their professional appearance. We must also consider if this approach confers an unfair advantage to attractive colleagues – an anecdote tells of a man who hired pretty girls to work in his office, “because they cost the same as plain ones.”
We know shouldn’t happen, but we know beyond a doubt that it does. It’s just another dubious journalistic practice, and it carries over into other trades too. The approach is likely to be of limited use against female editors; not only is it unlikely to work against them, it will also prove utterly transparent to a woman who has at some point faced the same decision. That said, it’ll prove transparent to anyone, male or female, who is shrewd and perceptive enough to have made it to the top of their industry. A good journalist can read people, break down pretences, and identify dodgy motives in a heartbeat – there’s no way a self-consciously flirty woman in a too-low sweater is going to get past them. Editors will notice it, and colleagues will surely resent it.
This isn’t a problem of my own creation; left to my own devices, I’d make the same effort when I meet with people as I do on any other day, the self-defined minimum appropriate degree of care and attention. The conundrum is thrown up by other people’s reactions to me, not my own opinion of myself. This is another point, one of many, at which I have to decide what kind of person I am. Can I really adopt this approach? Does it devalue my education and skills? What does it say about my feminist principles? Could I – or anyone else – respect a career based on titillating middle-aged men in positions of power? Can I be confident of the integrity I thought I had, or am I as motivated by money and success as the people I thought I stood against?

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Romney, Republicans, And Rape

Ladies and gentleman, welcome to the uterus. A number of important and complex things happen here, and each of us owes our existence to this useful and multi-talented organ.

You've seen one before, of course, and understand what it spends its time doing. Of course, depending on our biology and education, some of us have a better idea than others of its purpose and function. Women, for instance, will understand it, perhaps, as something they don't have cause to consider unless something unusual happens there. Some men may think that it transforms the normally placid and genial women in their lives into raging hellbeasts with no grasp of logic or reason - indeed, some women may agree with them. But if you're a male Republican politician in the United States, you may believe that it's equipped with a top-of-the-range security system to repel invaders, or that it's an item that women aren't responsible enough to control independently and so must be marshalled and regulated by legislation.

If you are a Republican who subscribes to this school of thought, there's an excellent chance you've already shared your profound insight with the rest of us. Below, with the assistance of many of righteously angry bloggers and commentators, I present a list of some of the most  ignorant and insensitive statements ever to issue forth from Republican mouths.

  • Todd Akin: “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways of shutting that whole thing down” - 2012 Senate Campaign 

  • Clayton Williams: “If it’s inevitable, just relax and enjoy it” - 1990

  • Chuck Winder: “I would hope that when a woman goes in to a physician with a rape issue, that physician will indeed ask her about perhaps her marriage, was this pregnancy caused by normal relations in a marriage or was it truly caused by a rape. I assume that’s part of the counseling that goes on.” - March 2012 

  • Ken Buck: “A jury could very well conclude that this is a case of buyer’s remorse … It appears to me … you invited him over… the appearance is of consent.” - October 2010 

  • Rick Santorum: “I think the right approach is to accept this horribly created — in the sense of rape — but nevertheless a gift in a very broken way, the gift of human life, and accept what God has given to you… rape victims should make the best of a bad situation.” - January 2012

  • Richard Mourdock: "I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God. And, I think, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happened." - 2012

  • North Carolina state Rep. Henry Aldridge: “The facts show that people who are raped — who are truly raped — the juices don’t flow, the body functions don’t work and they don’t get pregnant. Medical authorities agree that this is a rarity, if ever … to get pregnant, it takes a little cooperation. And there ain’t much cooperation in a rape.” - 1995

  • Delaware state Rep. Stephen Freind: “The odds that a woman who is raped will get pregnant are one in millions and millions and millions […] The traumatic experience of rape causes a woman to secrete a certain secretion that tends to kill sperm.” - 1988

  • Dr. Richard Dobbins, 20-year GOP contributor: “Most women either are not fertile during assault or do not become pregnant because the trauma prompts a hormonal response that prevents ovulation.” - 2006

  • Judge James Leon Holmes, Bush appointee - “Concern for rape victims is a red herring because conceptions from rape occur with approximately the same frequency as snowfall in Miami.”

I don't even know where to begin addressing these, and I'm frankly disgusted that I should have to. If a British politician said something so crass, so ignorant, so entirely devoid of fact, he would be seeking new employment within days. In May this year, Justice Secretary Ken Clark was broadly castigated for making a reference to "serious rape" (which he later clarified as "forcible rape... with a bit of violence") - in response, his party were urged to sack him, and he will surely struggle to escape the contempt his comments provoked. Beyond a considerable online outcry, few of the men (and it is usually men, isn't it?) quoted above experienced any censure.

America, you can do something about this. You can prevent repeated challenges to Roe vs Wade. You can halt the decay of women's hard-earned rights. You can protect other countries from following you into disaster; your decision, and the political moves that result from it, will affect people the world over. You have a chance to stop this aggressive ignorance from spreading, and you can achieve it simply making an 'X' in a box. America, it's time to make the right decision.